By: Laura Miller, LMSW
Feeling a little news obsessed lately? Between the upcoming election and COVID-19 pandemic it would only make sense if you’re experiencing a magnetic draw to refresh the news and gather information. In fact, a recent analysis shows that since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, media consumption has more than doubled nationwide. This increase in media consumption may be explained by the phenomenon that when uncertainty is high, the brain works overload to scour for information to help us feel more in control. Both the upcoming election and coronavirus pandemic carry an unprecedented level of uncertainty and while refreshing news outlets may provide some short-time relief, these behaviors ultimately have the opposite effect. Keep reading to better understand the nuances of media overconsumption as well as its effects, and for ways to stay informed on current events, while protecting your own well-being.
In today’s world, information spreads both continuously and instantaneously. A majority of people carry new outlets right in their pockets; smartphones that feed real-time information. Forbes magazine compared trying to stay informed on current events to “trying to quench your thirst by taking a quick sip from a fire hose. One minute you’ve logged into LinkedIn, and the next you’re deciphering a COVID-19 bar chart on the New York Times website.” The sheer volume and readily-accessible amount of media is overwhelming and can lead to an unproductive information search.
You might have heard of Netflix’s recent documentary, The Social Dilemma, which
highlights the various ways in which both social media and news sources have manipulated human psychology to rewire the human brain to continue to refresh news platforms. Essentially, the documentary discusses that features like timelines, notifications, likes and photo tags are all created to keep consumers coming back for more. With platforms built for overconsumption and readily available access, it’s all the more important to build a skillset to manage media consumption.
Too much news has been found to have negative effects on our well-being and furthermore, news about potentially emotionally distressing content – such as the coronavirus pandemic and an election- have even more of a negative impact. One study found that watching just 14-minutes of negatively-valanced news material, increased consumer anxiety and sad mood, and also resulted in consumers having an increased tendency to catastrophize personal worries. Even prior to the coronavirus pandemic, a 2019 survey by the American Psychological association found that more than half of Americans wanted to stay informed but that doing so caused an increase in stress.
While it’s important to stay informed, it’s equally important to take steps to ensure that your own well-being remains intact. The way that we absorb information has changed, and we must also develop new skills to manage the continuous flow of readily available information.
Control What You Consume
The first step begins with taking back control of your consumption. You need to determine what information is actually helpful versus what is unhelpful and can lead to more anxiety. You might ask yourself, “How is this news source serving me? Have I used any of the news this source delivered to me to better my life in the past week? Is this news I’m getting written in a way to create controversy and outrage? Are they repeating the same point over and over again?” In short, if the media is not serving you positively, you may want to think about eliminating this news source. Seek out non-sensationalized news that objectively offers helpful information. You want to stick to trusted sources such as the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, make an effort to seek out positive news stories. There is plenty of good news out there that doesn’t get the same media attention that negative stories do. Check out sources such as Positive News, Good News Network, or The Optimist Daily for an increased dose of positivity.
Control When You Consume
In addition to being selective about what you consume, you want to also be conscientious of when you’re consuming. Turning on the news and checking social media first thing in the morning while you’re still in bed can set you up for then having a more stressful day. Allow yourself time to wake up and do something that is productive and satisfying to you, prior to engaging in media consumption. Ideally, you may also want to consider setting up a dedicated time for consumption- no more than an hour, and then put your phone in “do not disturb” mode during your peak productivity hours. This way, you can eliminate the continuous flow of information while you need to be focused on other tasks. If you don’t think setting up a dedicated time to consume media is realistic for your routine, try to engage in media consumption sparingly; you may choose to use it as a reward for yourself, after you’ve done something productive. Also consider closing tabs of news or social media sites while working or completing school work. Not only is having them open distracting, but the continuous information flow is also harmful. Additionally, be aware of how late you consume news. You want ample time to process it during the day, and don’t want to be taking stressful news stories and related worry thoughts to bed with you.
Control How You Consume
Scrolling multiple websites and reading the same news stories over and over again is overwhelming. Consider subscribing to a digital news aggregator website, newsletter or app. This way you can get a quick-run down and stay informed, yet not spend too much time reading the same stories. Check out Google News for a quick selection of top headlines. Ultimately, you want something that will be able to provide the facts, without being overstimulating. You might also try asking your home smart-speaker system (Amazon-Alexa or Google Home) to tell you the news of the day. This way, you’ll hear a quick briefing that is detached and get a “robotic-run-down” of the major stories without being exposed as much to the potentially over sensationalized and emotionally charged material.
Of course, in addition to staying informed, do things outside news consumption! Connect with people that you love, take walks, exercise, listen to music… make sure to engage in pleasant and soothing events! When the media becomes too loud, you want to have a space to go that is quiet and pleasant. Media consumption is a major component of our day to day lives and we must adapt and learn new skills to adjust. Stay tuned for future articles on how to best manage social media usage and tips for parents to support their children’s social media and media consumption!